The spiritual successor to Planescape Torment has finally arrived.
Our world a billion years into the future. It's as foreign as anything as you'd imagine, filled with bio-mechanical beasts, corpse-eating cultists, ancient machinery that invades and takes over people's minds, and transdimensional objects and individuals. Civilisation upon civilisation has fallen victim to itself, with the next built on top. This is the Ninth World, and this is where Torment: Tides of Numenera plays out.
In this game you're the last castoff, the last vessel discarded by someone known as the Changing God. There have been many before you, marked with a sort of living tattoo on their face, just like you. You crash from the sky and find yourself chased by something called The Sorrow, and we have to make clear that this is not your run of the mill fantasy or science fiction universe, and the complexity is what really elevates Torment: Tides of Numenera. No decision is as simple as good or evil, even if morals are at the core of the experience, or as straight forward as min/maxing the outcome. There are five tides to consider; blue, red, indigo, gold, and silver, and they're not as easy to peg as say good and evil. Instead blue represents knowledge and wisdom, red can be passion and instinct, while gold is empathy and selflessness. Your actions feed these tides and shape those around you and your adventure.
During our adventures with Torment we've come to see and experience many wonders and atrocities, but rest assured we won't spoil them in this review, as the main purpose of the game is to experience and shape the narrative. In many ways this game turns the usual ratio of story and combat on its head. Whereas you'd typically spend a good majority of any RPG dealing damage, buffing your companions, and looking for loot, here you'll only rarely face an encounter and even then there could be options to avoid combat altogether.
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The writing found in Torment: Tides of Numenera is wonderful. It's clever and there is such a wealth of lore and secrets that at times it can be a bit overwhelming. For players who are more familiar with the world of Numenera it may be easier to take it all in, and perhaps even find flaws, but one has to appreciate the amount of work that has gone into making the world fit together, all the tiny little details, and how dynamic it is depending on your actions and choices. It's no easy task to craft a world where it truly feels like you're walking on top of layers and layers of civilisation, but that has been accomplished here.
Here's a slight spoiler (not to do with the main story) to give an example of the sort of impact you can have on the world and its inhabitants. There is a girl hiding in the ruins of a house in Sagus Cliffs, and some thugs want you to turn her over so they can give her to their master. You can choose to do this, of course, or you can stand up for her. If you do the latter she can become a companion of yours (one of three you can have in your party). If you wish you can confront the women, a slaver, who wanted the girl, and it turns out she's a castoff, much like yourself and her reasons for needing the girl are compelling even if they're not exactly benevolent (nothing is ever that easy in Torment). Do you hand her over (she's not the strongest companion in the game anyway, quite the opposite), or do you fight your fellow castoff? And if you win, do you let this slaver regenerate and return? That's actually one of the more interesting aspects of Torment, as failing or even getting killed isn't the end, as castoffs aren't easy to kill off. There are so many considerations and choices to make in what's really just a simple optional little side path, and you could easily miss it entirely.
We even learned when starting on a second playthrough that if you stand up for her, then tell that you're handing her back to her tormentor, she will disappear altogether and you won't have her as a companion nor will you have the favour of the other castoff. There are many potential companions early on and you won't necessarily realise all your options on the first playthrough, and there's enough replayability here to warrant a second playthrough soon after the first one. But perhaps you'll take a break any way given that after this more than 30 hour long adventure there are games like Horizon: Zero Dawn, Nier: Automata, and Mass Effect: Andromeda to get to inside the next month.
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Visually, Torment offers a beautiful, handcrafted look and feel, where it seems every last detail has been a conscious decision. It offers more bells and whistles on PC compared to PS4 (the two versions we've played), and we also prefer the user interface found in the former version. The game is sparsely voiced and you'll be reading text for much of it, but that's not necessarily a bad thing, as like reading a good book, text can offer a more layered experience. Given the amount of text we can only assume InXile would have needed a far more successful Kickstarter and even more time to fully voice the entirety of the game. The voice acting that is there is of high quality though, so it would be interesting if one day a game such as this one could be fully voiced.
We've mentioned that combat (or crisis as it's called here) is a rare occurrence (unless you really want to provoke a fight), and the mechanics aren't exactly great either. There's an initiative system in play where friends and foe line up at the start of each round before taking turns moving and performing actions, but the fact that the camera perspective is fixed (you can only zoom in and out), means that some attacks are hard to judge, and particularly area of effect attacks take a little getting used to. There are some interesting encounters though, and you're not always just tasked with winning and defeating all enemies, but there could be things to interact with or you could simply be tasked with escaping or avoiding detection. But if you add in the fact that combat is where most of our performance issues arose, then you're clearly looking at the weakest part of the game.
The terminology in Torment: Tides of Numenera is a bit different than in most other video games. There's XP and levels, sure, but you're character also achieve tiers. You'll need to unlock not just skills and abilities, but you'll also need to further your effort (putting effort into attacks or actions, increases the odds of success), as well as edge, and cypher capacity (one use items that can really change things up). It can seem a bit alien at first glance, but it behaves much like you'd expect it to in most other RPGs, it's just that here you'll have more use for things like mind reading and charisma than you do for combat buffs.
We mainly played the game on PlayStation 4 for the purpose of this review, but it wasn't without issue, and for some reason we had particular problems playing on the Pro version of the console. There was one particular crisis tied to an optional quest (which sort of ties to the main story, we think - we weren't able to complete it) where we got ourselves in a situation where combat was necessary and the game would simply freeze as we entered the crisis - there was simply no way around it. We've been told that the issue is one that the developers are aware of and presumably it will be patched, but that's just one of many performance issues that we ran into. Torment makes use of the Pillars of Eternity engine, and it is plain to see that it's not properly optimised for console. Not that the PC version is without flaws, but it certainly performs better. Loading times are another area that's not as good as it could be.
Walking between regions in Sagus Cliffs becomes particularly tedious as you'll spend more time with loading screens than actually walking through the scenes as you make your way from say the Order of Truth (basically a lab for researchers) to The Fifth Eye (a bar of sorts at the other end of town). Most quests don't see you going back and forth a lot and the areas are cleverly interlinked, clearly in an effort to make it less cumbersome, however, you will grow tired of loading screens, especially in that first town where you'll likely spend a lot of time learning the various systems and taking on secondary quests, solving murders, saving traitors, or learning truths.<
Is it a worthy spiritual successor to Planescape Torment then? We'd say so, even if it's not perfect. It's an RPG that almost borders on a visual novel given its heavy reliance on text and story over combat, grinding, and character development. But it is something different, something that removes you from the all too familiar fantasy and sci-fi settings and in doing so forces you out of your comfort zone. It will immerse in a very strange world where some sort of organic and trans-dimensional metro system called the Bloom is a part of every day life and where one of the least weird things you'll see is a man walking around without a head.
8 / 10
Brilliant writing, Lots of ways to solve quests (or fail them), Wonderfully intricate world, Moral choices that go deeper than good or evil, Beautiful design.
Combat is lacklustre, Plenty of performance issues (particularly on PS4), The amount of text may be off putting to some.